Blue Streak - the military project.

Blue Streak can be dated back to 1953, when German rocket scientists who had been working in Russia since the end of the war returned home. The influential Defence Research and Policy Committee (DRPC) studied the debriefings and concluded that UK should start work on a ballistic missile programme and also an anti-ballistic missile programme.

The ballistic missile was seen as being almost invulnerable to defensive measures, which is the reason why ABM work was stopped in 1960. However, the work did come in useful in later programmes such as the Polaris improvement programme, Chevaline.

Sandys, then Minister of Supply, signed an agreement with his opposite number in America in 1954. This was to co-operate on a ballistic missile programme. America was to produce Atlas, an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, ICBM; the UK a shorter range Medium Range Ballistic Missile, MRBM.

Thus Operational Requirement OR 1139 was issued in mid 1955, calling for a missile with a 2000 mile range which could carry a thermonuclear warhead. However, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston had not tested a thermonuclear device (and would not until 1957), and even then, the design would probably have been too heavy. In order to reach its target range, the warhead would have to weigh less than 2,000 pounds. Penny, Director at AWRE, suggested a large fission device instead. This design, Orange Herald, was fired at the Grapple tests at Christmas Island in 1957, with a yield of 720kT.

De Havilland Propellers began design and construction in 1957, having licensed the Atlas tank construction technique from Convair. Rolls Royce licensed the S3 motor from NAA, and built a copy designated the RZ1. This was redesigned to save weight, and the new design was designated the RZ 2.

A static test stand was built at Spadaeadam in Cumbria, where complete vehicles would be static tested before shipment to Woomera for firing.

Politically, Blue Streak fitted in to the new Defence Policy as outlined in the 1957 White Paper, whereby conventional forces were to be reduced (in particular, conscription was abolished, and new aircraft for the RAF cancelled) in favour of nuclear forces. However, the costs began to give rise to considerable concern in the Treasury, and there were others in Government and in Whitehall who were apparently uneasy about the project.

Based out in the open, Blue Streak would be hopelessly vulnerable to pre-emptive strike. From this flowed the idea of "underground launchers". Little was known about how such a huge missile could be fired from a hole in the ground, leading to a large research project at the Rocket Propulsion establishment at Westcott. From this, a design was drawn up for what would today be called a missile silo. [more details here.]

The problem, however, was the size and cost of such structures. Initial Air Ministry estimates were of the order of 2.3 million each - and 60 would be needed. This further increased opposition to the project. However, such opposition was muted, as there did not seem to be a viable alternative to Blue Streak.

This was to change in 1959, with the emergence of a new weapon for the USAF - WS138A, to become better known as Skybolt.

Skybolt was designed to be carried by SAC's B52s, as a form of "fire suppression". The missiles would be fired at the enemy defences from 1000 miles away, and thus increase the bomber's chance of getting through. They would carry a relatively small (400kT) light weight warhead.

This, as an option to Blue Streak, pleased many factions in the UK. Since the development costs would be carried by the USA, the missile would be cheap. It could be carried by the V bombers, with further cost savings, and the idea of flying aircraft rather than manning a hole in the ground greatly appealed to the RAF. The main problem was a political one: how to cancel an on going programme on which a great deal of money had been spent.

The classic Whitehall answer is, of course, to set up a "study group" - in this case the British Nuclear Deterrent (Study Group) - BND(SG). (This became affectionately known in the Admiralty as the "Benders" group.) The way to arrive at a result which you want is to pick members for the group whose views might be already be known.

But what was the pretext on which cancellation could be based? The answer lay in the "vulnerability" of "fixed sites". Indeed, which side of the argument you were on could be seen by the phrase used: "fixed sites" for those against the project, "underground launchers" for those in favour.

The point of the launch site was that it should be immune to attack. However, a direct hit would have disabled it. The question then was how many missiles would have to be fired at a site in order to achieve this. The answer lay in the accuracy of the Russian missiles, which was unknown at the time. Using a variety of assumptions, the Study Group reported that 300 3 megaton warheads would eliminate almost all the sites.

But this does rely on a variety of assumptions which might or might not have been true. In addition, would be the USSR have been prepared to devote this proportion of its armoury just to knock out the UK's atomic weapons? And more controversially, the group concluded that, given a similar attack, that at least some bombers would be able to leave their airfields. It does seem unlikely that 20 or so unprotected airfields would be less vulnerable than 60 hardened silos.

Be that as it may, the group recommended in December 1959 that Blue Streak be cancelled in favour of V bombers carrying Skybolt. This was not a decision that went unchallenged [see, for example, this paper], and so it was not until April 1960 that Harold Watkinson, Minister of Defence, made his announcement of the cancellation in the House of Commons. But he did mention in his statement that the project would be continued as a satellite launcher.


Most writings on Blue Streak have dismissed it as "obsolete". Perhaps compared with American and Russian missiles of the mid 60s onwards, this might have appeared the case. It was not the case when compared with the Atlas or R7 of 1957.
Being liquid fuelled added to this perception. But Titan II, also liquid fuelled, was in service until the late 1980s. The use of cryogenic fuel might be a more valid criticism, as this might have increased the response time. However, for a second strike weapon housed in a silo, response time is something of an irrelevance. The issue for a second strike weapon was whether it can be launched after the main attack - which was the point of the silo. [More details of the requirement for the silo can be found here.]

As for being obsolete: the main point of a weapon is whether it will do the job intended - as to whether it uses the latest technology is an irrelevance.

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